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The History of the Webster Parish library

On October 8, 2019, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Main Library Headquarters in Minden, the Webster Parish Library will be celebrating its 90th birthday. As a child the library was my home away from home and I also spent four very happy years there as an employee. It is a special day in our community when we can celebrate such an important institution in our town. Today’s column will look at the genesis of the Webster Parish Library.

From its earliest history, Minden was recognized as a community that valued reading and education. The Minden Academy, chartered in 1838 by our founder, Charles Veeder, was one of the first schools to receive government support in Louisiana. Later the Minden Female College continued the tradition of education in Minden. As early as 1883, there was a call for the establishment of a library here in Minden. In that year, a literary club was founded and created a small lending library made up of books donated by its members. 

By 1929, Minden, like much of the nation, was at the end of several years of boom times. Even though the farmers of the nation were suffering from an extended period of down times, urban residents were enjoying the highest average standard of living in U.S. history. Minden had grown tremendously during the 1920s. The addition of the L & A Railroad as a local business had spurred a population boom that led to Minden officially becoming a city in 1926. During the years between 1923 and 1929, more than a dozen new commercial buildings were built in Minden and new neighborhoods such as Justice Heights and the Goode Addition began filling up. With that in mind, a group of concerned citizens, led by the ladies of the Women’s Department Club decided the time had finally come when Minden must have a library. 

At the meeting of the Webster Parish Police Jury on Tuesday evening, February 5, 1929, Mrs. R.A. Baker appeared before the jury as a representative of the Women’s Department Club.  She informed the jury that the Department Club was interested in sponsoring and championing the creation of a parish library in Webster Parish. The Louisiana Library Commission was then the equivalent of today’s Louisiana State Library. The Department Club had been in contact with the Commission and had gained support of that organization for a local library.

Mrs. Baker asked the Jury for funding to help start the library with the club serving as the main sponsor. Plans were to also seek support from the School Board and the City Council. The Jury unanimously approved a recommendation to back the Department Club in its efforts and appoint a committee to contact the Minden City Council, the Webster Parish School Board and the Minden Chamber of Commerce to seek a combined effort of all those groups to get a library in Minden. The following committee was created: Mrs. Baker, Mrs. J. B. Snell (better known as the author, Ada Jack Carver), T. C. Franks, J. D. Huckaby and J. M. Pearce. In the next few weeks, the Minden City Council and the Webster Parish School Board at their March meetings joined in the drive for a parish library.

At this point the local community received a boost from “friends in high places.” Local native and nationally prominent sociologist Miss Mary Mims was a close personal friend of Miss Essie Culver, Executive Secretary of the Louisiana Library Commission. Miss Mims suggested that Webster Parish be selected as the demonstration parish for the establishment of a “model library” conforming to the provisions of the State Library Law.

Again, local connections proved useful, as J. O. Modisette, the Chairman of the Louisiana Library Commission, was a native of north Webster Parish and offered enthusiastic support for Webster Parish being given the opportunity. 

Even though funding from the local level had been offered, it still seemed to be a stumbling block until an outside source was found. The Rosenwald Fund, which used its resources to construct and fund educational institutions all across the United States, was persuaded to evaluate Webster Parish’s credentials for receiving assistance in opening a library. After an inspection visit the Fund administrators ruled in our favor and conditions were ready for the Webster Parish Library to be born.

In Minden, a building that had formerly housed an automobile dealership on South Broadway (Back Street) was leased by the Police Jury to serve as the headquarters of the library. (The building was used until 1964 and today houses The Children’s Center.) From the first this library was intended to serve the entire parish, not just Minden, so an arrangement was worked out with the school board to create branch libraries in schools throughout other sections of the parish.

A library board was appointed to oversee operations. The members of this first Webster Parish Library Board were: President Mrs. R. A. Baker; Vice-President, Superintendent of Schools E. S. Richardson; Secretary-Treasurer, Mrs. Dan Stewart; Marshall Pearce and R. L. Ensey. 

Initially funding for the library was set up on a five-year basis with $8,000 provided locally. The Police Jury appropriated $2500; the city of Minden, $2000; the town of Springhill, $500; the Webster Parish School Board, $3000. This amount was matched dollar for dollar by the Rosenwald Fund for the first two years, with the Fund’s contribution gradually decreasing over the next three years before being phased out. The plan for local funding included proposing a parish-wide tax to be presented to the voters within the next few years.

Miss Mary Walton Harris, from the staff of the Louisiana Library Commission was named as librarian with local residents Sarah Jones and Flora Glenn Watkins hired as her assistants. Since fifty percent of the local population was black, B. L. Colbert was employed as the “Negro Librarian” for the parish in those years of “separate but equal” and segregation.

The Signal-Tribune of Wednesday, October 2, 1929, detailed the plans for the grand opening, to be held at 7 p.m. on Thursday, October 3, 1929. (The Signal-Tribune was itself a newcomer to the local scene. Its first edition had been published on September 8, 1929 as a consolidation of the old Webster Signal, which began publishing in the 1890s and the newer Minden Tribune, first issued in 1927. During its first years of operation the Signal-Tribune was published twice weekly on Wednesdays and Sundays, in an effort to fill the gap left by the combining of two weekly papers, published on different days. Later in 1931, a new version of the Minden Herald began publication and the Signal-Tribune would become a weekly.)

The formal dedication program on October 3 was held in front of the library building. The first speaker was Superintendent E. S. Richardson of the Webster Parish Schools. Richardson’s support and his offer to house branch libraries in the schools had been a big boost in the establishment of our parish library, only the fourth such parish library established in Louisiana. In his remarks, Richardson described the efforts that it had taken to realize the dream of a parish library, but emphasized that the impact on the communities of Webster Parish would be tremendous. He again promised the full cooperation of the school system in the programs of the library.

Next on the program, Mayor H. L. Bridges of Minden welcomed the library to our town, proclaiming it the “biggest thing that has come to Minden” during his time as mayor. Then President H. J. Heflin of the Webster Parish Police Jury, the governmental agency in charge of overseeing library operations, made a brief statement of welcome.

The Louisiana Library Commission, the forerunner of the Louisiana State Library was represented on the program by Essie Culver, the managing secretary of the Commission (the equivalent of today’s State Librarian) and the President of the Commission, J. O. Modisette. Modisette expressed particular satisfaction at seeing such a facility opened in the parish of his birth.

Mrs. Robert Baker, the President of the first Webster Parish Library Board of Control, and the lady who had championed the concept in the Women’s Department Club and carried the campaign to the Police Jury, was the next speaker. She introduced the library staff, beginning with Mary Harris, Parish Librarian. Miss Harris made a few remarks before the introduction of her assistants. The first assistant was Miss Sarah Jones, who came to Minden from the staff of the State Library Commission and the second assistant was Miss Flora Glenn Watkins of Minden. One additional staff member was introduced, Mr. J. A. Colbert, who served as truck driver for the library. A unique feature of the Webster Parish Library from the start was the library truck. Even though only the main library was opened in October, plans were already in placed to establish branch libraries in the parish schools, including, in a rare move for those years of segregation, the black schools. The library truck would be used to carry books between the various branches.

In anticipation of the grand opening, congratulatory telegrams and letters had been received from individuals and institutions in Louisiana and across the nation. Several of these messages were read to those in attendance, including one from Minden’s own Mary Mims, a nationally prominent sociologist and pioneer of the cooperative extension movement. Miss Mims had been instrumental in obtaining funding and support for the local project and she sent her regrets that professional obligations made it impossible for her to attend. Miss Harris was also presented a large bouquet of yellow chrysanthemums from the Shreve Memorial Library in Shreveport.  

As the ceremony concluded the library was opened to the public for the first time. In the early days the library was open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 2 to 5 p.m.; on Tuesday and Thursday from 7 to 9 p.m. and on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., 2 to 5 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. The Library Board of Control requested that Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday’s night patrons be limited to adults. While children would be allowed, the goal was to preserve an “atmosphere conducive to helpful reading during these nights” and children were asked to use the library during the day, if possible. Books were to be checked out for a two-week period.

Within the first week of its existence the library registered 191 patrons who checked out 240 books. By the ten-day mark, 370 patrons had registered and 515 books had been circulated. From that point forward, the Webster Parish Library became a significant part of life in our parish.

From the start the Webster Parish Library focused on reaching out to provide reading and education to the residents of the parish. As mentioned earlier, branches were set up in parish schools and two full-time librarians and nine teacher-librarians were placed in the parish schools. A “library truck” was purchased with the slogan “Books and service free to all.” This truck was used to carry books into the rural areas of the parish from the main branch in Minden. The presence of service in the black community and in the schools made Webster Parish the first library in Louisiana to provide service for both races and to create an cooperative relationship with the local schools.  In its very first summer of operation, 1930, the library began the tradition of a special summer reading program to encourage school children to continue to read during their break from school.

Still, despite the local support, the Webster Parish Library was limited in many ways. Nearly a quarter century after it was founded, the library was still operating in the renovated former auto dealership, which was still being rented by the Police Jury. In the mid 1950s, the Library Board of Control, under the leadership of Willard Roberts of Minden, proposed the construction of a new library facility for the parish headquarters and the Minden branch. The building would be located on the “Hitching Lot” between the 1905 Webster Parish Courthouse (by then Minden City Hall) and the new 1953 Webster Parish Courthouse. For a brief moment, it seemed that the plan would succeed, but the machinations of parish politics saw it meet a narrow defeat back in the days where tax votes included two tallies – the individual votes of the taxpayers and also by total assessed property. A majority in both tallies was necessary, and the proposition failed to achieve that victory.

Thus, as the 1960s began the Webster Parish Library was providing first class service for the citizens of the parish, while being hindered by limited, second-class, rented facilities. It seem that no matter how much the Library staff, the Library Board, or the Police Jury tried, better facilities paid for by the taxpayers seemed out of reach. At that point, an unexpected blessing from a local family changed that picture. In my next Echo of the Past, next week, you will read of the events of 1963 – 65, which provided new hope for the Webster Parish Library in the form of the Ferguson-Stewart home.

Webster Parish Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald